I watch my close friend and her husband interacting with their seven-year-old and I am often tempted to point out where I feel they are making mistakes. My wife and I have a grown son and would have appreciated the perspective of another adult in our parenting years. Do you think we should get more involved with our friends’ child and their parenting issues?
Sure you should, in a non-intrusive way. Your friends may well appreciate it, as will the child. We live in increasingly nuclear times. What kids have lost out on is the sustained presence of significant, loving, responsible and fun adults other than their parents.
We have all had at least one such adult—that favourite aunt or uncle, grandparent or godparent—who loved us quite unconditionally. Who would indulge (not necessarily spoil) us, laugh at our jokes, whose freezer always had ice cream, who would come up with solutions to offbeat problems, or listen to cribs about our parents and even play mediator.
Third umpire: As a para-parent, you can be the more relaxed figure in a child’s life
These are “para-parents”. They are the ones who are there for kids, without having the weighty parental duties. They are important people in the lives of the parents too: They are the safety-valve when the parenting pressure builds up.
Why are para-parents important?
u They broaden the relationship base of a child. For a child to know and trust other adults, learn to give and take, it is essential that he interact closely with adults other than his parents.
u Children often feel frustrated by the decisions and rulings of their parents. The presence of a “Third Umpire” in a child’s life is crucial—it gives him/her a sense of fairness from the adult world.
u When we punish our children, we tend to not just punish them for their “crime”, but to criticize and reject their personality for a while. The para-parent is available at such times to the child, as a person who may support the parent in the disciplinary action, but is detached enough from the situation to not reject and shun the child totally.
u Many parents tend to over-focus on their children, overprotect them, and in this way, limit their experience of the world. The para-parent, in this scenario, is a more relaxed adult figure, with whom the child is safe and yet able to explore.
Who makes a good para-parent?
u Any mature, loving human being whom the parents trust.
u A person who has time and energy to be in the child’s life in a sustained fashion. Continuity and dependability is very important. A Santa Claus who appears once a year is not a para-parent.
u A person who does not hold a world view and lifestyle too different from those of the parents. This can be confusing for a child.
u But not a person who is a clone of the parents. A para-parent who is a little different has so much more to offer a child, bringing in refreshing new ideas, emotions and experiences.
A note of caution: For a healthy bond to form between a child and a para-parent, the parent has to know and believe that this adult in no way displaces the parent or undermines his/her authority. There is no place for jealousy and rivalry between two adults over a child—that would be an emotional disaster, the brunt of which is borne by the child in the form of guilt and emotional confusion.
(Write to Gouri at firstname.lastname@example.org)